Understanding Your Place in Church Conflict


Doug Tzan, a faculty member at Wesley Theological Seminary, explains how critical it is for pastoral leaders to understand their own role in church conflict and be intentional in choosing how to respond. He outlines five strategies to help a leader maintain a helpful presence in the midst of conflict.

Early in my tenure in ministry, a retired pastor in the congregation I served publicly criticized my leadership and stirred up conflict in the church while the senior pastor was on leave. Once she returned, I debriefed my response to our troublesome colleague with her. She affirmed my actions, and shared words of wisdom that have remained with me ever since: “Just remember,” she said, “It’s not about you. And even when it is about you, it’s not about you.”

At the time, I took her words to mean the retired pastor was acting out his own issues; I should not take his criticism personally. His words and actions said much more about him than they did about me. She was certainly right. But over the years, whenever conflict has surfaced in a church I served, I discovered new depths to her wisdom.

Understanding a pastoral leader’s place in conflict

When conflict happens in church communities, pastoral leaders become lighting rods and targets. “It’s not about you” is a helpful mantra to keep in mind, because it’s always important to depersonalize conflict. No matter what you may be feeling inside, try to maintain a non-anxious presence.

But at the same time, “It’s not (not) about you.” Forgive the double negative. My point here is not to contradict what I just said, but to emphasize that in any conflict we are participants in the system and can choose how to respond. As good as we may be in depersonalizing conflict or maintaining a non-anxious presence, others will not be so successful. How we respond in those situations matters. To put it another way: “It is about you a little bit.”

Ultimately, though, “It’s not about you. It’s about God.” When asked how I led a congregation through a particularly difficult conflict recently, my short answer was, “Prayer, sleepless nights, and a reminder that Christ is the head of the church.” The last phrase is the most important. It’s important to trust that God is always at work in the community, even in the midst of conflict. God can redeem even the most painful and hurtful situation. Whatever might be happening in the moment and whatever divisions might be present, God called the church into being to be in mission. The Spirit of God will carry it through a season of conflict to fulfill that mission.

These five strategies can help a leader maintain a helpful presence in the midst of conflict.

1. Be self-reflective.

In any church conflict, it’s important be self-reflective. Attend to your own feelings and motivations. Consider and evaluate your own words and behavior. Process them afterwards with a spouse, friends, and trusted colleagues. Consider your words carefully. Own your mistakes.

Once, in a contentious church meeting, I said some things I shouldn’t have. As the meeting adjourned and people were leaving, I asked everyone to come back in the room to hear my apology. Although I wish I had been more careful with my words in the first place, I was grateful that I was able to reflect on my actions as the meeting progressed, realize my mistake, and take actions to ask for forgiveness. I was also thankful that after the fact a church leader expressed appreciation for my apology, and he noted modeling contrition and humility is itself an act of leadership.

2. Attend to self-care.

It’s also important to practice healthy self-care. This point is definitely about you; nobody else will do this for you. Attend to your physical, emotional, and spiritual health. Through any season of conflict in the church, take the time you need to care for your important relationships, including your relationship with God.

3. Focus on process not outcomes.

It is helpful to focus on process, not outcomes, and to trust that the end result of any situation is in God’s hands. This includes both listening carefully to what is said in discussions and what silences there are. What voices in the community are not represented in meetings? Who speaks and who remains silent? Sometimes it’s important to solicit input to make sure everyone is heard: “I notice that you have been listening very intently, but you haven’t said anything. What are you thinking about all this?”

4. Provide information.

Another aspect of a focus on process is providing information, information, information. In general, it’s best to overestimate how much information people in the church want and underestimate what people already know. More is better. The reason for this is because the absence of information creates unnecessary source of anxiety in a congregation. Even if the only thing to report is, “There is nothing new to report,” report that!

5. Stay focused on God and God’s mission.

The most important dimension of a focus on process, however, is to keep focus on God and God’s mission. Shortly after Paul declares that Christ is “head over all things for the church” (Eph. 1: 22b), he writes how Christ breaks “down the dividing wall” of hostility (Eph. 2:14). In conflict, it’s easy to focus on what divides — the boundaries we perceive between us in any conflict. It is far better to focus on Christ, who unites us in grace. Whatever conflict reigns in the moment, Christ is eternal.

Keeping the focus on Christ allows you to be clear and open about your own beliefs without insisting that others agree with you. The goal for the church is unity, and that unity does not require agreement. Unity requires love.

Related Resources


About Author

Doug Tzan

The Rev. Dr. Douglas D. Tzan is the Director of the Doctor of Ministry and Course of Study programs at Wesley. He is also an Assistant Professor of Church History, Mission, and Methodist Studies. An ordained elder in the Baltimore-Washington Annual Conference and serves as the Vice President of the United Methodist Historical Society, and his research interests include the history of Christian mission, Methodist history, and world Christianity.

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Discovering God’s Future for Your Church

Discovering God’s Future for Your Church is a turn-key tool kit to help your congregation discern and implement God’s vision for its future. The resource guides your church in discovering clues to your vision in your history and culture, your current congregational strengths and weaknesses, and the needs of your surrounding community. The tool kit features videos, leader’s guides, discussion exercises, planning tools, handouts, diagrams, worksheets, and more. Learn more and watch an introductory video now.